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COLUMN

Saving historic house is a good risk, for a lot of reasons

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Want to help?

For more information on the effort to save an endangered historic home, call ARCH at 426-5117 or go to www.archfw.org

ARCH needs at least $100,000 to move home from redevelopment site

Thursday, June 6, 2013 - 9:19 am

“We love living here. The house is so historic. Too bad it's going to be torn down,” Jennifer Burcham said as she stood on the porch of the house she and her family have called home for the past five months.

But if the West Central Neighborhood Association and historic preservation group ARCH have anything to say about it, Burcham's epitaph for the 125-year-old Italianate home will be premature.

The two-story brick house, which still has a stone block bearing the name of former resident “Dr. (Karl) Proegler” sitting in the now-overgrown front yard, sits on 2.7 acres near Parkview Field the city has targeted for residential redevelopment. Most of the homes aren't worth saving, the city and ARCH agree, but both agree there is one notable exception.

So if ARCH can find the money – at least $100,000 and probably more – the Fairfield house won't be torn down at all. It will be moved and, hopefully, sold to the benefit of not only ARCH but also the new owners and the historic West Central Neighborhood.

“It would make somebody a really nice house. It was restored (by then-owner Ervin Orban) in the 1980s. It still has the original windows, banisters and doors, and (Orban) did a nice job on the porch,” said ARCH Executive Director Mike Galbraith, who hopes to raise the money somehow within 90 days or risk seeing a potential treasure become a “pile of rubble” along with the other affected homes along Fairfield and Ewing Street.

It sounds like a daunting task, and is. But ARCH isn't starting from scratch, and has helped save similarly endangered historic homes before.

Redevelopment Director Greg Leatherman said that if ARCH can develop a feasible plan, the city will give the organization the house along with the money it would have spent on demolition and other expenses to offset moving costs. That may amount to $15,000, and “we're not shutting the door on more,” he added.

But that still leaves ARCH a lot of work to do, starting with identification of a relocation site.

Because of railroad overpasses to the north and south of downtown, the house would probably have to move east or west. Joe Francis, vice president of the association for the West Central Neighborhood just west of downtown Fort Wayne, said the area has a handful of vacant lots that could accommodate the house.

A lot will cost money, too. So will a new foundation and new heating and cooling system, all of which will be added to the already steep moving expense. And so Galbraith has to not only raise money but figure out whether the enterprise can be justified economically, not just aesthetically.

“We're working with realtors to do our due diligence. If it costs us $100,000, we can't sell it for $50,000,” Galbraith said.

One way of limiting expenses would be to buy a lower-cost lot. Several are available south of Jefferson Boulevard near Moody Park in an area Francis said is “coming back.” The city's investment in Parkview Field and the Harrison Square project is one reason for that, and the still-undefined residential project planned for the soon-to-be-vacated Ewing-Fairfield area the city is buying for about $2 million is expected to give that comeback an added boost.

So I suspect that this project could at least break even financially even if ARCH has to borrow at least some of the up-front money needed to make it happen. But you don't have to look very hard to understand that the benefits of such a move cannot be measured in dollars alone.

Drive down West Berry Street near Rockhill Street and you will see the beautiful and historic Sponhauer and Edsall-Brown-Wise homes, both of which were moved into the West Central Neighborhood in the 1980s with ARCH's help.

You'd never know it now, but both relocated homes sat there for years, in various states of disrepair and frustration, before new owners turned them into the showpieces they are today – community assets that might have been lost forever had ARCH and many others not taken a risk.

If Galbraith is right, what seems like an even bigger risk today will look like a wise investment in just a few years. That will come far too late to keep Burcham and her family in the house they love, but others – and the city itself – will benefit then if Galbraith, Francis and others succeed now.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.